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Sad Dogs and Sad Songs: How Emotions Impact Consumer Behavior

Posted On  March 4, 2019

We all remember the TV ads. Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” is playing while images of abused cats and dogs scroll by. Just a few seconds into the ad and you feel a tugging at your heartstrings. Undoubtedly, you’ve been exposed to an emotional appeal. Is that emotion sadness? Anger? Guilt?

One thing’s for sure: whoever created this spot insisted that it was the best way to get people to donate to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). This was an intentional choice. The organization could have gone with images of playful dogs rescued from abusive environments or owners expressing the joy they feel about rescuing their pet from a bad situation. Instead, it chose to go with sad dogs set to a sad song.

And within two years, the ASPCA credited the ad for raising and astounding $30 million.

Measuring Emotions for Consumer Insights

Our Behavioral Science Team identifies emotion as one of the five core elements of human behavior (the other four: gut reactions, habit, motivation and identity). By understanding how all five of these drivers impact consumers and their purchase behaviors, brand marketers can better optimize their product and communications strategies. But measuring emotion is especially important because it can offer direct insights into whether brands are successfully delivering experiences that facilitate favorable consumer behaviors.

It’s no secret that emotions — even negative emotions stirred by the ASPCA’s campaign — can drive human behavior. But quantifying emotion and its impact on behavior is where the real challenge lies. One way we can evaluate emotions is to consider them across two primary spectrums: valence and arousal. The valence spectrum measures emotion on a continuance from positive to negative and the arousal spectrum runs from high arousal to low arousal.

It may be surprising to learn that people don’t think too deeply when they’re experiencing a positive emotion. They’re more likely to “go with the flow” and make quick decisions that won’t interfere with that emotion. Negative emotions, on the other hand, inspire more deliberate and contemplative thought. Arousal is a little more straightforward; the higher the arousal, the more energy is involved. When someone has more energy, they’re more likely to be moved to action. It’s important to note that high arousal emotions can be both positive (excited, infatuated, etc.) or negative (frustrated, threatened, etc.).

We can measure these spectrums of emotion with two techniques: recall and direct observation. Recall methods ask respondents how a particular experience made them feel. Recall methods are especially useful when testing product features (“How did you feel test driving the convertible vs. the sedan?”). Direct observation, on the other hand, measures the subject’s physical reactions to the experience, such as facial coding and heart rate monitoring. This method is especially useful for ad testing (“What was the viewer’s physical reaction when she saw the convertible whiz past the screen at the 15-second mark?”).

Marketing to Emotions

Generally, marketers want to promote positive, high arousal emotions. That’s often the best way to appeal to new customers and to motivate them to try something new. A great example would be the Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man In the World” ads whose messages tinged with humor and adventure left viewers feeling inspired (a positive and high arousal emotion). The ad campaign ran for several years, peaking in 2009 when Dos Equis sales climbed 22 percent in a year when overall imported beer sales fell four percent.

So why, then, were the negative emotions associated with the ASPCA campaign so successful in helping the organization raise tens of millions of dollars? The answer is that brands may still resonate if they position themselves as solutions to those negative emotions. The ASPCA sent a clear message that it’s a force of good against the evils of animal abuse. And because the vivid imagery provoked high arousal emotions of anger and guilt, viewers were quick to respond with their wallets and pocketbooks.


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